Body of War, the critically acclaimed anti-war documentary film from talk show host Phil Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro, is set for release on April 9. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to the legendary Irish American host about the path to the war in Iraq and its unforeseen consequences.
AT the White House on Sunday President George W. Bush claimed that the outcome of the Iraq war would merit the sacrifice. Within hours of his speech the U.S. toll passed the sad milestone of 4,000 dead. Then on Monday the White House announced that 140,000 troops would remain stationed in Iraq throughout 2008, clearly signaling that a wind down or exit strategy are not being contemplated.
For Phil Donahue, 70, the legendary Irish American talk show host, the U.S. presence in Iraq is an international rolling nightmare from which he hopes the nation will soon awake.
On April 9, in a move that some have called unlikely, he will ring the alarm bells himself by releasing a remarkably powerful new documentary film that outlines the war's discreetly hidden cost: thousands of young American lives lost.
Body of War, co-directed by Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro, opens at next month at the IFC cinema in New York. A jolting documentary about the effects of the war, the film focuses on one 28-year-old soldier, Tomas Young, and on his family and friends.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Young enlisted in the Army in 2001, just two days after 9/11. Assuming he'd be sent to Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaeda, the gung-ho 25-year-old at the time was surprised to find himself deployed to the notorious Sadr City in 2004 after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.
Traveling in an unarmored vehicle, his unit was ambushed. With a single shot from above Young was instantly paralyzed for life from his chest down.
A true blue patriot, it was only during his long-term medical treatment that Young began to question the motives behind the Iraq war and the decisions that sent him and other troops there.
Body of War is his homecoming story, intimately captured over three years. We see the devastating effects of Tomas' injury upon his new marriage, including the daily physical and emotional toll it leaves him with, and we encounter the shocking lack of adequate healthcare for Iraq war veterans.
Although the film focuses closely on the political decision making that led to the war, Body of War is at its strongest when it unflinchingly catalogues what it's like for Young to face the everyday challenges of adjusting to his new disability. Eventually and movingly, we watch as Young finds his own passionate voice as he becomes a member and speaker with Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW).
Donahue calls Body of War a movie about a drama that is taking place behind closed doors in thousands of homes in America. Homes that are occupied by patriotic brave young men and women who have come back from this war with life altering injuries (29,451 wounded, according to the AP press count).
Many of these injuries are hideous, much worse than injuries sustained in past wars because Army triage strategies have improved.
"We worked on the film for three years because we think that if you call a war the people should see the pain. Don't sanitize the war," Donahue told the Irish Voice.
"When I first met Tomas Young I thought people should see this. That was three years ago."
Direct to camera, Young struggles to explain that since his return from Iraq, it's been difficult for him to stay upright when the only parts of his body that obey him are his shoulders and his arms. And then there are the days when his body is completely uncooperative, the days when he starts "bawling for no real reason."
Later, in a fast moving series of jump cuts, the film documents how Republican Party officials repeated the same pro-war talking points, often verbatim, for months before the invasion occurred.
"This president scared everybody, he took the nation by the ear, including the Congress and led it right into the sewer. It's unbelievable what you can do if you scare the people enough - remember the color-coded terror alerts? Where have they gone? They did what they were supposed to do - frighten people," Donahue says.
For Donahue the Iraq War Resolution - the popular name for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 - exemplifies Congress's abdication of responsibility for the war.
"I watched the debate live in October 2002 and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I saw a superficial debate. The message everywhere was we have to get Saddam! He outside your bedroom window, he's under your bed, he has weapons of mass destruction, we can't wait!
"You could feel the pulse of the nation and the Congress - everybody in October 2002, it seemed to me, wanted to bomb something. We were so mad we couldn't spit. And all of this was unfolding three weeks before an election. That's the real crassness of this."
In Donahue's view the White House maneuvered Congress into taking a vote on the Iraq War Resolution. "In the House they were three weeks before discovering if they would have another term. But the rage was palpable and if you voted no against the war after having been told that it was Iraq that knocked down the towers?
"To vote no on the resolution engineered as it was by the White House and fed by the White House Iraq Group - the assembly of advertising agency warriors who name our invasions like Shock and Awe, Enduring Freedom, Rolling Thunder, Mission Accomplished."
What those Orwellian locutions disguise, Donahue asserts, are the dropping of bombs on crowded cities where children and old people are sleeping.
"And the American people are at home watching it on television. We wonder why we're not liked? But you can't even explore why we're not liked because if you do the laptop bombers who beat the loudest drums for this war - and wouldn't think of sending their own kids to fight it - if you express any wonder about how we could be so despised that 19 guys with box cutters would bring this country to its knees and randomly kill 3,000 people - if you ask what motivated them you were blaming the victims."
As Donahue found on his short lived MSNBC network show, it was hard to launch even a discussion of the march to war, he says. He credits what he calls the government's multi-million dollar campaign to marginalize the dissenting voice, which was a stunning success.
"You were unpatriotic if you questioned the war, you didn't support the troops. "What are you going to do, sing 'Kumbaya'! Ha Ha Ha!"
Donahue attributes his enduring spirit to his Irish background. "My father's people, the Donahues - by the way there are no Donahues in Ireland, our name was Anglicized - came from Zanesville, Ohio and my mother from Cleveland. My father's mother's name was Kiernan too, so there's no hope for me at all, the saints preserve us."
Now in 2008, Donahue laments, politicians have to run for office with a bayonet in their fist. But in his view Americans are never going to feel safe or be safe until they're brave enough to elect leaders who will reach out rather than lash out.
There's no glory for fixing health care, there's no glory for fixing public education, there's no glory for fixing an economy. The only way you get a statue in a park is to win a war. This, says Donahue, is what we celebrate.
"This is the vision that Bush sees. Some day they'll see how brave and wise he was. Marching forward to the danger that lay before him. But for one more person to die in this war is morally indefensible."
The U.S. Constitution declares that only Congress can declare war, but in Donahue's view Congress did what all Congresses have done since the early 1940's - spinelessly avoiding a mandate to take a stand up or down on this war.
"They covered their eyes and handed the president a piece of paper that says here is permission if you think you have to. That is not what the framers intended. James Madison is the one who said don't give this power to declare war to one man, it's too much of a temptation. If you do he'll get on his horse and draw his sword."
For Tomas Young the Iraq war is over, but it will remain with him for the rest of his life. He's sick every day in bowel and bladder, he throws up every morning. He suffers from erectile dysfunction too, and his marriage has ended.
"Twenty eight years old in the prime of life - what's a sacrifice to you? Nobody knows this. Less than 5% of this nation has sacrificed for this war. And you have all these bomb throwers tripping over bombs crying God bless this and God bless that.
"They can't want to bless everything. These are the hypocrites who would never think of drafting the rich. Unless we draft the rich we'll never get out of our holier than thou breast beating, our insecure declarations that we're the last remaining superpower. Oh sit down - what is your point? The longer we say that the more insecure we appear to be."